Stand-up paddleboarding: Sport federations squabble over control

International Canoe Federation and International Surfing Association each want to control stand-up paddboarding, while SUPers like Olympian Larry Cain just want to get on and paddle.

Canoe Federation, Surfing Association each believe they should oversee paddleboarding

Larry Cain won Olympic gold and silver medals in sprint canoe in Los Angeles in 1984, but in recent years has become a devoted convert to stand-up paddleboarding. He's seen here paddling his SUP on Lake Ontario near Oakville, where he trains regularly. (Michael Drapack/CBC)

Another canoe was the last thing Olympian Larry Cain needed. "I thought it was time to grow up and, you know, not acquire new paddling toys."

But it was not a canoe that a buddy goaded the Canadian Olympic gold-medal-winning paddler to try back in 2010.

It was a stand-up paddleboard, or SUP.

"So I entered my first race in January 2011 in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, and I won," he says. "And that just got me addicted, and since then I've been paddling pretty much every day — and in the last few years, every day year-round."

Cain's evolution from canoeist to stand-up paddleboarder mirrors the rise of the sport itself.  

Stand-up paddleboarding is one of the fastest growing sports in the world, with well over 3 million participants in the U.S. alone and an annual growth rate of 26 per cent, according to a 2016 report by The Outdoor Foundation.

That popularity has created a tsunami of controversy at the upper levels of global sport, between two international watersport federations.

The International Canoe Federation (ICF) and the International Surfing Association (ISA) each believes it should be the governing body for the sport of stand-up paddleboarding.

At stake could be millions of dollars in funding should SUP ever become an Olympic event.

ICF versus ISA

The Canoe Federation thinks it's the obvious choice, since SUP requires a paddle.

Fernando Aguerre, president of the International Surfing Association, makes an argument that stand-up paddleboarding is more akin to surfing than canoeing. (Courtesy ISA)
"ICF statutes state clearly that a person using a paddle as a main form of propulsion whilst on a craft in water is canoeing, paddling," International Canoe Federation secretary general Ian Toulson told Reuters in April.

The Surfing Association folks say it's not as simple as that, it's more nuanced.

"This is not a canoe. This is not a kayak," International Surfing Association president Fernando Aguerre told NPR in June.

"Sure, it may look similar. But you know, you can play soccer with a basketball and you can play soccer with a volleyball, but they're not the same sport."

SUPers weigh in

Ask a SUPer if they're canoeing or surfing, and the answer you get is a little bit of both.

"I think you have to be doing both, otherwise you're not going to get the most out of the board," says Ian Howard, one of Cain's paddling companions. "It's partly technical, but it's also feel."

"It depends on the day," explains Brandon Van Elslander, another dedicated SUPer who paddles with Cain. "If it's a flat-water-type day, you're paddling. But if the conditions change and you're downwinding and surfing larger swells, you are indeed surfing."

Paddleboarders launch from a boat ramp in Oakville, Ont. Stand-up paddleboarding is one of the fastest growing sports in the world, with well over 3 million participants in the U.S. alone and an annual growth rate of 26 per cent, according to a 2016 report by The Outdoor Foundation. (Michael Drapack/CBC)
When asked who should govern the sport, they all answer with humour: "What did Larry say?"

SUP has given Larry Cain a second life on the water as a coach, instructor and just a barbarian competitor. Wander down to where Sixteen Mile Creek meets Lake Ontario in Oakville, Ont., and chances are you'll find Cain leading a group on a brisk 90 minute paddle up and down the shore. He's the guy who, at 55, looks like he could still win those Olympic canoe-sprint gold and silver medals that he earned in Los Angeles in 1984.

"The real fascination for me is I'm doing something I never did before in all the years and years that I've paddled. If I was still paddling my racing canoe, I'd just be going slower," says Cain. "But the cool thing about paddling on a paddleboard is I'm actually getting better."

"I care about both," Cain says when asked which federation should govern. But he adds, "I think the International (Canoe) Federation should probably stick to managing canoe and kayak."

He's worried the ICF could be spreading itself too thin in taking on another sport and should concentrate on what it knows best.

"In order for them to do that, they need to focus on that."

Canadian Olympic canoeing medalist Larry Cain says the International Surfing Association (ISA) should govern the sport of stand-up paddleboarding. 'I think the International (Canoe) Federation should probably stick to managing canoe and kayak.' (Michael Drapack/CBC)
Furthermore, Cain says, the ISA has already done more for SUP as a competitive sport than has the canoe federation. 

"The International Surfing Association took on paddleboarding when no one seemed to be interested in it."

Ariel Amaral can attest to that. The Barrie, Ont.-based SUPer recently returned from the World SUP Championships in Denmark … which were organized by the ISA.

"ISA was running this amazing race, and I've never been part of such a well run race in my life," extolls Amaral. "If they can run it that well, why is that trying to be taken away from us to go with the canoe side (as the sport's governing body)?"

Ariel Amaral of Barrie, Ont., competes at the 2017 World SUP Championships in Denmark. (Courtesy Ben Reed/ISA)
This tug-of-war will soon be resolved. The Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, is set to mediate the dispute between the two federations in early December.

At the end of the day, though, Larry Cain says that for most paddlers it really doesn't matter who wins.

"The essential thing about sport is you go out and participate and you enjoy it," Cain says.

"You don't need rules and you don't need people telling you what to do. You drive your board down to the water, take it off the car, drop it in the water and go for a paddle."


Michael Drapack

Field Producer

Michael Drapack is a field producer with CBC's The National based in Toronto.


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